Synecdoche, N.Y.


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Cotard delusion is a rare form of mental illness in which the patient holds the belief that he is dead, or does not exist, or is decaying. You can probably begin to guess that a film in which the main character is an introspective director named Caden Cotard is not going to be a vehicle for lowbrow laughs with Larry the Cable Guy. (Or, as the Germans call him, Der Rosenkabelier.) The fact that the film is named after an obscure literary trope will reassure you in that belief.1  You know for sure that you're in surreal territory when you hear that the film was written by Hollywood's resident eccentric intellectual, Charlie Kaufman. The icing on the cake is that Kaufman also directed the film in his first effort at the helm. His presence in the director's chair assures that there is nobody to constrain his vision, or to dilute his communication with the audience. (Or lack thereof.)

The lead character, Caden Cotard, is directing regional theater in Schenectady, New York (population 60,000) and is in the midst of several mid-life crises. His wife is disappointed with him, does not respect him, and is on her way toward becoming a major figure in the art world, which will cause her to take their daughter off to Germany for good. Caden also feels that he must have some serious health problems, and his fears seem to be justified by his various seizures and pustules, which lead him to be obsessed with decay and death. (Aka Cotard delusion. He should have seen that coming.)

Just when he seems to have reached the nadir of his existence, he is awarded a vast sum of money as one of those "genius grants" from the MacArthur Foundation. This is a turning point in a film which had previously been somewhat grounded in reality. First of all, there is no conceivable reason for the MacArthur people to recognize his work as genius. From what we have seen, he belongs right where he is - in Schenectady. Second of all, the MacArthur grants ($500,000 or so) could not possibly finance what we see him doing with the money - taking many decades to create a full-scale replica of part of New York City.)

So, how are we supposed to interpret all of this? Is this another movie where the protagonist is dead or dying and is looking back on his life through a deathbed dream? No, I don't think so. I think we are supposed to accept this alternate version of reality.

At any rate, Caden decides to use his infinite wealth to create, in a typical artist's masturbatory fashion,  a replica of his own life. As time goes on, the project becomes larger and more ambitious, and more confusing. He hires an actor to play himself. When that actor commits suicide, Caden has to hire another actor to play the first actor, and another actor to play himself. The actor who plays Caden has an affair with Caden's unrequited love. The actress who plays the unrequited love has an affair with the real Caden. 

And so forth.

Synecdoche, N.Y. is an odd film to be sure, and one that seems to have been sent to us from an earlier era when dramatists liked to grapple with the big ideas, often using non-traditional and non-linear structures to express those ideas. Pirandello shattered the fourth wall in Six Characters in Search of an Author. You're probably familiar with the work of Samuel Beckett, who is most famous for Waiting for Godot; and you may know of Eugene Ionesco, whose name is closely associated with the term Theater of the Absurd. If Charlie Kaufman had been born in Europe in 1908 rather than in New York in 1958, his name would be on the same list.

You think I'm exaggerating? Not so. August Strindberg, one of the pioneers of experimental drama, introduced A Dream Play with this preface in 1901: "The characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, dissolve and merge. But one consciousness rules them all: the dreamer's; for him there are no secrets, no inconsistencies, no scruples and no laws. He does not judge or acquit, he merely relates; and because a dream is usually painful rather than pleasant, a tone of melancholy and compassion for all living creatures permeates the rambling narrative."

I could take that paragraph and apply it directly to Synecdoche, New York, without changing a freakin' comma.

I admired Synecdoche, New York. I found it engaging not only on an intellectual level, but also on a visceral one. For a film with such a convoluted structure and such high-falutin' ambitions, it surprises by managing to lead with the heart, not with the head. I came out of the film thinking about the nature of existence, feeling compassion for the characters, and knowing that I had better watch a comedy before bedtime to prevent 24 hours of depression. I mean that in a good way, in the sense that the film delivers the emotional punch it is meant to deliver, despite a lot of philosophical ruminating, and a lot of confusion. Somehow or another it will manage to get inside your head, and maybe into your tear ducts.

Many people had a problem with the time compression of the film, but I applaud what Kaufman did there. Temporal disorientation is always with us. The sane as well as the insane lose track of time, especially when it comes to the current status of people we have not seen for many years. I have some first cousins on my father's side whom I have not seen since my grandfather's funeral in January of 1971. At that time I was 21, and they were in early primary school. When I went back to Rochester for my 40th high school reunion, I was shocked to discover than one of them was a grandmother. In my mind they were no longer 8 years old, but I was imagining them in their early twenties. Kaufman simply takes this sort of disorientation to the next level. Caden Cotard just can't get a handle on time. He thinks his wife has been gone for a week when it is a year. He thinks his daughter is four when she is eleven. He thinks he's just about ready to open his big play when he's been in rehearsal for seventeen years. All of that time slips by and he keeps missing the opportunity to get comfortable with the woman who really loves him. When he finally does become her lover, it is too late. She dies the next day. Kaufman's script manages to take our sense of fleeting time and use it as a plot device.

Of course, it would not be a Charlie Kaufman script if that woman had passed away in some ordinary fashion. She died of smoke inhalation, because she had been living for decades in a house on fire.

Is this sort of thing marketable?

For Kaufman's work in general: yes. His past writing efforts have not produced any blockbusters, but they have resulted in accessible, commercial films for a select but fairly sizable audience - an audience similar to, but larger than, Woody Allen's market. Eternal Sunshine, one of my favorite films, grossed 34 million dollars, which is more than any of Woody's films have grossed in the past two decades.

In the specific case of this film, no. Kaufman has gone too far from the beaten path this time. Of course, Kaufman is not the only filmmaker who has trod such a surreal path around the fourth wall. Peter Greenaway's The Baby of Macon is on the same route, with its multiple layers of reality and its play-within-a play-within-a-film structure. But Greenaway's films are not expected to turn a profit. He is an intellectual creating art films for other intellectuals, using funds provided by government endowments which are specifically earmarked for prestigious egghead endeavors. Kaufman, on the other hand, is a former sitcom writer who is attempting to create commercial films. Synecdoche proved to be so inaccessible as to be insufficiently appealing even to Kaufman's usual following, and it could not approach the popularity of Kaufman's most popular writing projects:

Release Title Total gross Max # theaters
10/24/08 Synecdoche, New York $3,047,390 119
3/19/04 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind $34,400,301 1,357
12/31/02 Confessions of a Dangerous Mind $16,007,718 1,776
12/6/02 Adaptation. $22,498,520 672
10/29/99 Being John Malkovich $22,863,596 630

It's a shame that there's not a larger market for more challenging, experimental, and ambitious drama, but the simple fact is that there is not. If Kaufman wants to continue getting financing for commercial projects, he'll have to make them less opaque.

I hope he does.

There's just nobody else in the film industry similar to him. People love him or hate him; they can find him maddening, depressing, brilliant, confused or confusing. But nobody calls him a copycat. Like Greenaway, he's a true original, and we need these guys.

DVD Blu-Ray


2 James Berardinelli (of 4 stars)
4 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
62 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
67 (of 100)








7.7 IMDB summary (of 10)
B- Yahoo Movies









Box Office Mojo. See the main commentary for more details.











Synecdoche, pronounced sin-ECK-dih-kee, is a figure of speech in which a more comprehensive term is used for a less comprehensive, or vice versa. Most frequently it is used to describe the substitution of a part for the whole. Examples: (1) "I took my wheels out for a spin," rather than "took my car." (2) "You must do this in the name of the crown," rather than "of the king" or "of the kingdom."

It is often confused with metonymy, and for good reason, since metonymy is the substitution of an entity or concept with another that is closely related. Since the part is closely related to the whole, every synecdoche is also a metonymy, but non vice-versa, if we accept those definitions. Examples of metonymy which can not be called synecdoche: (1) "The cyclist rear-ended me," rather than "rear-ended my car." (2) "Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings," rather than "of the end of dynasties and eras."










  • Michelle Williams appears in a see-through robe.
  • Robin Weigert is buck nekkid
  • Emily Watson is topless.
  • Catherine Keener is seen in a vision of full frontal nudity, but it is a painting, not a photo.


Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


Very impressive in many ways. Arguably, genuine art. Also so opaque that the potential audience is about six people.